The most interesting thing about the 'grid collapse' was not that it collapsed but the coverage it received across the international media. Major news papers had lead stories with headlines such as: 'India leaves 700 million without power', 'An Electrical Grid Is Pressed to Its Limit', 'What They Said: The Worst Blackout Ever' 'India's Blackouts Expose Coal-Dominated-Grid's Failure, Need For Distributed Solar'. It was not clear that whether they were fascinated by the number 700 million or the fact that 'disaster' had struck. Callers from the western media were most disappointed by comments from locals which implied that it did not disrupt their lives much and that such experiences were common in India. Many kept asking if they knew of anyone whose life had been interrupted badly. Some wanted to know if India is being punished for its dependence on coal and if this could have been avoided if India had instead depended on decentralized solar energy.
For industries and businesses dependent on grid based electricity the duration of the power failure was probably an unexpected and unaffordable. For those stuck in mine shafts, tunnels and hospital beds with power unavailable for critical equipment the experience would have been devastating. But for most people in urban North Indian households the experience was not what the western media wanted it to be: devastating and terrible! Most of the urban middle class households and businesses have back up power systems that would have taken them through the day without much of a problem. A slightly longer commute time in cities or even in long distance trains is also not unusual. Half an hour of rain or few hours of fog has had the same effect of stalling traffic and shortening the working day by several hours-something which very few are upset over. For those from unfortunate workplaces that do not have back up power it would have been just another free day. After all this is not a society that has a serious work culture.
Of course, all this does not justify 'power failure' or 'grid failure'. The grid system of a country in a hurry to become an economic super-power should have had built in institutional and technical mechanisms to prevent such failures. Even now it is not clear why simple circuit breakers that would have automatically cut off sections of excess power consumption to stabilize the grid did not function. It is also not clear why there was 'excess consumption' by some States as it has been reported in the media. It was a rainy day with lower than average temperatures. Farmers could not have been unreasonable enough to switch on the electric pumps to pump ground water on a rainy day nor could have frugal Indian households been irrational enough to keep their air-conditioners on when an open window would have been more than sufficient to keep them cool.
It is very likely that human error was behind the failure. Even deliberate human action cannot be ruled out. There is enough political and economic material with which the conspiracy theory of deliberate human action can be justified. There are many who want to capitalize on the negative sentiment over the ruling coalition. Pulling the plug off the grid is an easy way to pile on humiliation on the Government. On the other hand the business community for which investment in the power sector has not turned out to be the golden goose it thought it would be there is an ulterior motive of shocking the government into 'action'. The 'action' the business community is looking for is probably lax regulation and excess incentives for building more and more of everything whether or not it is relevant for the problem at hand. The sinister tone of the Indian media headlines in fact reflects this sentiment: 'Superpower India, RIP' or 'Powerless & Clueless'! A more thoughtful headline from a column in the Hindu brought out a hidden and inconvenient truth that the rest of the media ignored: 'For a few hours India experienced Bharat'. As per Census 2011, over 390 million people in India officially do not have access to electricity and at all and probably another 300 million are used to power not flowing into their homes for over ten to twelve hours a day. Many of these powerless households are in the Northern and Eastern region of the country. The grand number of 700 million having suffered from 'grid collapse' is therefore far from accurate. If an eager reporter from the western media had asked a woman in rural Northern India about 'the disaster' she would have probably responded 'disaster' is all the life she knows.
The tone of 'disaster' was probably mistakenly read off by the western media from the 'social media' which is dominated by the English speaking middle-class and elite urban youngsters, a minority segment in India. As an observer remarked 'the middle class has is now the 'portrait' of the nation and not just a 'proxy' for the nation. The exaggerated sense of entitlement from the middle class is loud, crude and is audible across the world but it is an inaccurate representation of India's emotions. A youngster sending out a picture of a crowded metro station in Delhi through the social media and commenting 'I cant go home, I cant get to college, I am hungry, my life is ruined and the Government is responsible (quoted in the western media) is not profound articulation of grievance in India but immature babble of a spoilt youngster. The majority in India which does not have a proper house, does not go to school or college and functions without electricity does not have the time to blame the Government nor does it have the time to waste 'tweeting' about it. In a very perverse way the fact that many are not connected to the grid at all provided the nation enough flexibility in its system to cope with a 15 hour grid failure. The fact that even those lucky enough to be connected to the grid are not used to 'certainty' and have back-up systems to cope with 'uncertainty' also helped. But a nation that has made 'disaster' normal and 'every day' is not a super-power and can never be a super-power.
Observer Research Foundation